At first glance, the Institue for Public Relations' (IPR) 2021 Future of Communications in Asia Report may not set the pulses racing, covering much of the same ground that has been extensively discussed at APACD events, and investigated in research studies such as the Asia-Pacific Communications Index and Asia-Pacific Communications Monitor

But IPR's first Asian study offers an invaluable synopsis of the critical themes impacting corporate comms in this region, thanks to a qualitative approach that involved interviews with 27 senior communications executives who work for Asian-headquartered companies, and focus groups with 20 in-house Asia communications leaders.

Indeed, it may be that the report's enduring value is for global communications leaders based outside this region, who are unaware of just how rapid the pace of change is in Asia-Pacific.

There are five themes that the report finds from its research. The first, that Asia is a dynamic and highly diverse region, may sound reasonably obvious — but it remains a conundrum for multinational companies. 

"Often, I suspect, practitioners outside the region don’t truly have an appreciation of the extent of the diversity within the region," says IPR trustee Stephen Thomas. "The emphasis on the fact that the region is so diverse in nature and that brings its own challenges and opportunities if you’re trying to roll out a communications plan that is going to resonate with stakeholders in Vietnam, Japan, China, India. The extent of that process is probably less well understood."

That diversity impacts everything from Covid-19 recovery trajectories, to the use of technology platforms, the level of communications expertise and specific cultural insights. It perhaps helps to explain why an accelerating pace of change underpins the report's second theme, which reflects how communications is becoming more strategic and influential in the region, even if measurement continues to lag

"Unless comms practitioners can see or recognise the importance of reputation today, that kind of approach can no longer be taken," said Su Lin Yeo, associate professor at Singapore Management University's Lee Kong Chian School of Business. "Many Asian companies focus on a model that is customer-centric, whereas the rest of the world focus on all stakeholders. With the pandemic, communications cannot be more valued at this time."

It is also seen most profoundly in the report's third theme — that Asia is “leapfrogging” the traditional stages of technological development. Many of the region's economies are now digital- and mobile-first, with people in some markets typically conducting all of their online activity on a single, localized social platform.

The fourth theme, unsurprisingly, details the rise of internal communications, which has only been accelerated by the Covid-19 pandemic, but remains a challenge for many Asian companies.

"Companies in Asia are also focused on increasing the presence of their companies’ executives on their internal social media platforms," details the report. "This is one area in which Asia continues to lag the West. While employees want their executives to be more visible internally during the pandemic, one challenge is getting them to feel comfortable doing so. Multiple communications executives noted their senior leadership is inexperienced with social and, therefore, they are conducting one-on-one trainings to help them be more comfortable on social platforms."

Finally, the report's fifth theme details the rise of the stakeholder society, thanks to the growing importance of geopolitical and sustainability issues. There is increasing pressure to speak up and speak out, even if Asian companies are typically seen as more reticent in these areas.